Friends and Relations

Some thoughts in re: Alan Jacobs’ two posts on inter-religious dialogue:

1. Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, the famous Jewish celebration of religious intolerance, a commemoration of a great victory by the reactionary Hasmoneans against their Hellenizing opponents (and their Seleucid allies. That Hanukkah is understood in America is celebrated as a festival of religious freedom says something about how the meaning of a tradition is inevitably in the hands and minds of living tradents, but it says something more profound about the relationship between religious liberty and _in_tolerance. Religion (as opposed to conscience) is a corporate rather than an individual matter – Milton may have belonged to a sect of one, but most of us who are in any meaningful sense religious are members of corporate bodies extending through time and space. And corporate bodies to exist at all must define their boundaries: this is who we are, this is what we believe, this is how we behave. And this requires an implicitly if not explicitly excluded “not that.” This being the case, if freedom of religion means, most fundamentally, the freedom to be a heretic, it equally means the freedom to declare that the other guy is a heretic. In a very real sense, a social environment that is hostile to religious intolerance must necessarily be hostile to religious freedom. So, ironically, the modern transformation of Hanukkah from a festival of intolerance to a festival of religious freedom is no transformation at all!

2. Naturally enough, as a celebration of reactionary, intolerant fundamentalism, Hanukkah also celebrates the rejection of religious syncretism. And, naturally enough, Hanukkah is, in modern America, the preeminent syncretic holiday. And the syncretism runs in both directions. From the Jewish side, “competing” with Christmas has artificially elevated the status of Hanukkah from arguably the least important of the minor festivals to one of the most preeminent, and has also transformed the holiday (the tradition of giving Hanukkah presents is an adaptation of a Christmas-season custom, to say nothing of such outrages as the Hanukkah bush, Hanukkah Harry descending the chimney, or green-and-red-striped bagels). And in the general culture, where the presence or absence of a creche sparks fraught debate, the presence of a menorah kashers anybody’s “holiday” celebration, and the addition of Hanukkah songs kashers the “holiday season” repertoire of the school choir. And yet, once again, there’s a buried basis for such a sycretism in the history of Hanukkah, which probably began as a belated observance of the holiday of Sukkot/Tabernacles, a major festival that probably could not have been observed in its season because of the Temple’s defilement (hence the urgency to cleanse the Temple as quickly as possible). And Sukkot/Tabernacles is the Jewish festival that most explicitly looks forward to a period of religious unity, when all shall worship the Lord at His holy mountain.

3. The idea of believing in a God who is nice kind of boggles my mind. “Behold now Behemoth that I made with thee” – that’s the God I’m familiar with. And yet, while we’re told to imitate God in various ways (clothe the sick as He does, heal the hungry as He does, feed the naked as He does), are we sure that it’s wrong for us to be nice just because He isn’t, particularly? “Tolerance” is a particularly ugly word, but liberality, generosity of spirit: these are generally counted as signs of strength, not weakness, in an individual or a tradition. I’m not trying to defend a foolish liberality, but then, I hear a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, so maybe the main thing is not to be foolish?

4. I’m going to give one specific cheer for religious dialogue: authentic knowledge is very hard to come by without dialogue, and knowledge is good. It’s good for it’s own sake; it’s good because, inasmuch as religion depends on exclusion for corporate identity, it’s a good idea to know what one is excluding, and that one is excluding it for right reasons; and because the resonances between the religious beliefs, practices and history of other faiths can be productive in one’s own tradition. If this were not the case, one must ask why the medieval theologians in Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions bothered to keep up with one another’s arguments?

5. The additional cheer, for Jewish-Christian dialogue rests on a simple fact. For Jews and Hindus, or Christians and Buddhists, one alternative to dialogue is respectful distance. But Jews and Christians do not have that option, because our histories are bound up with each other. Christianity, after all, is an interpretation of Judaism (and, from a Jewish perspective, a heretical and arguably blasphemous one). We do not have the option of being strangers. I fear that, if we do not learn how to be friends, we shall perforce be enemies. And yet, it is not obvious that there are any enduringly plausible terms of friendship, at least not on any profound level.

Now I have to get back to cooking.